On a night when Vanderbilt's post-season hopes were hanging in the balance, it was Matt Freije who came up huge. The senior forward matched a career high with 32 points on 5-of-10 from 3-point range and 13-of-15 free throws.
"I was proud that we showed a great deal of toughness down the stretch," said a much-relieved Kevin Stallings. "This was not easy. A lot of good teams have come in here and lost. I'm just very proud and happy for our team tonight."
A ticked-off bunch of Commodores came out in the first half looking as though they weren't content just to break the much-discussed 14-game SEC road losing streak-- they were there to obliterate it. After falling behind in the first two minutes, Vanderbilt went on a 28-4 run on its way to a 42-24 halftime lead. It was the kind of road domination reminiscent of the Commodores' 35-point win over TCU on Jan. 3.
Over that memorable stretch, it seemed as though everything Vandy threw up went in. Hitting both from short range and outside the 3-point line, Freije put on a clinic and accumulated 21 points in the game's first nine minutes. The hapless Crimson Tide left the floor at halftime to a smattering of boos from the home crowd.
But the Tide would turn-- literally. Alabama came out of the locker room smoking, and knocked down seven 3-pointers over the first 15 minutes of the second half-- and meanwhile, the Commodores' magic shooting touch mysteriously disappeared. With 4:43 left to play, a dunk by Alabama's Chuck Davis tied the game at 60-60, and the lead that had once seemed prohibitive had been squandered.
With the partisan crowd of 7,875 roaring, Alabama seemed to have all the momentum. But Vanderbilt came up with a couple of defensive stops, and scored the game's next six points. Corey Smith scored a key layup with 2:23 to play to put the Dores up 64-60. The Commodores missed two big free throws through a nervous final minute and saw Alabama cut the lead to three with one second remaining, but held on for the win.
"After losing one at home, we knew we needed to go on the road and get one," Freije said. "With them being 4-6 and us being 4-6, we really needed this game."
With his 32-point outburst Freije moved past Charles Davis, Drew Maddux and Clyde Lee into fourth place on the Vanderbilt all-time scoring list, with 1,697 points. With five regular-season games remaining, Freije now needs a mere 28 points to surpass Phil Cox as the school's all-time leading scorer.
After hitting 50% in the first half, the Commodores cooled off considerably in the second half to finish just 41% from the floor. Vanderbilt was 9-of-20 from behind the arc, however, and 19-of-24 from the foul line. Corey Smith and David Przybyszewski added 10 points each; Russell Lakey, who started the game in place of Jason Holwerda, did not score but had four assists and four rebounds.
Kennedy Winston led four Alabama players in double figures with 17 points. Chuck Davis added 16 (14 in the second half), followed by Earnest Shelton (15) and Emmett Thomas (11). Mark Gottfried's Crimson Tide, trying like Vandy to stay in contention for an NCAA bid, fell to 12-10, 4-7 in the league.
Vanderbilt had not won an SEC road game since a 67-62 win over Tennessee in Knoxville on Feb. 23, 2002. The Commodores have now defeated Alabama in three straight contests.
The Commodores return to action Saturday for a 5 p.m. CT game against LSU, a regional TV game on Fox Sports Net. The Tigers fell to 17-5, 7-4 with an 80-68 home loss to Auburn on Wednesday. Vanderbilt is 13-1 at Memorial Gymnasium so far this season.
Photos by Jason Getz, Associated Press.